EPA chief at Vatican: Obama 'aligned' with Francis on climate change

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by Joshua J. McElwee

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Explaining her visit Friday to the Vatican, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said she wanted to let Pope Francis know that President Barack Obama is "aligned with him" on the issue of climate change and is taking action.

"I think the pope knows his own beliefs," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. "I want him to know that the president is aligned with him on these issues and that we are taking action in the United States."

McCarthy, who is visiting the Vatican Friday as part of a five-day European tour to promote the Obama administration's climate action plan, was speaking in a small meeting with press before heading to Vatican offices.

The administrator said she would be bringing a message of hope to Vatican officials that "this is not a challenge that human nature and human beings can't fix."

"This is not an issue that should be driving economic problems," said McCarthy. "It should be bringing economic solutions that [are] totally consistent with the efforts that the Catholic church with great pride has been doing ... to bring relief to folks that are most in need of relief, folks that are in poverty."

"Those are the ones that are going to be hit and we have to take the action now," she said.

McCarthy, who was speaking alongside U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Ken Hackett, said she would be meeting Friday with Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. She also said she will also be meeting during the day with Msgr. Antoine Camilleri, an undersecretary at the Vatican's Secretariat of State.

Hackett said the U.S. embassy to the Holy See would be hosting a reception for McCarthy and other Vatican officials Friday night.

The administrator is also to tour some of the work the Vatican has done to better its environmental impact, including solar panels that have been installed in the city-state and an air filtration system that has been put in place at the Sistine Chapel.

Asked about Francis' expected encyclical on environmental issues, which the pope has indicated will be published in June or July, McCarthy first joked: "It's certainly not my place to dictate to the pope what he should be doing in an encyclical."

But she also said the pontiff's message on climate change has already been "very powerful."

That message, she said, "is to face up to the challenge of climate change, to recognize that it is a challenge how we can serve those most in need and protect them."

"One of the challenges that I think we face in the U.S. is that climate change is very often viewed as a political issue," said McCarthy. "And environmental issues are not political."

She continued: "I think we need to get this out of the political arena and get it back to the arena we work most effectively on: What's right for our kids, for our families, for public health, and what solutions do we bring to the table that are going to address those?"

McCarthy was also asked about Francis' remarks on the papal plane while traveling to Manila, Philippines, Jan. 15 that he was disappointed by a "lack of courage" by world leaders at the U.N.’s last meeting on climate change, held in December in Peru.

Referring to the next U.N. Climate Change Conference, to be held in Paris this November and December, McCarthy said: "We think there is a bit of change happening now that is making the atmosphere as we lead up to Paris more hopeful."

"Clearly, the pope wants actions and he wants real commitments and we do as well and we're providing them," she said.

"I think the pope's continued push to try and get the resolutions to the table that we need -- if that's where he wants to be -- I think that's great," said McCarthy. "It just continues to provide visibility."

Before concluding her remarks, McCarthy thanked both Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. bishops' conference for their work on climate change, saying both organizations had been "amazing" on the issue.

McCarthy also thanked the Catholic Climate Covenant, a coalition of dozens of Catholic organizations, dioceses, religious communities and colleges working on the issue.  

"The faith community's voice is going to be very important here because EPA can talk about the science and reach only so far," said the administrator. "We need to get this to the point where people are as comfortable talking about this as they are other international public health threats."

"Everybody is just looking for the pope to continue to make signals that this is an issue that is important to the Catholic church and should be important to all of us," said McCarthy. "Then we can take it from there ... in terms of what it means to translate [that] into effective strategies to get the word out and to start the actions."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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A version of this story appeared in the Feb 13-26, 2015 print issue under the headline: EPA chief visits the Vatican.

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